Friday, December 28, 2018

Telling It Like It Is

The most common mistake made by storytellers at all levels of ability has one, if not the most simple, solution.

The mistake is the "tell," the infraction made famous by its position in the mantra "Show, don't tell."

Most sentences in stories that begin with "It" are tells. It was cold. It was dark. It was late. Sentences that begin with "It" serve as illustrations of the problem and the source of the problem.

The problem, known among veteran fiction editors as "authorial intervention" or "AI," centers on the writer's choice to intervene with the equivalent of a stage direction, those scenery- and setting-related notes found in stage plays and screenplays.

The solution to the "It" problem is to filter the information, the coldness, darkness, and lateness of the previous examples through the senses of the individual from whose point-of-view the scene plays forth. Here's Mary to demonstrate the "It" situations. 

Mary buttoned her jacket against the cold.  Mary wished she'd worn more substantial clothing.

Notice how, in the first example, Mary feels the cold, which is no longer told, is in fact demonstrated. In the second example, Mary shows her abilities by reacting to the cold without so much as a direct mention of it.

Here's Fred to perform dark for us.

Fred stumbled on a rut in the road he hadn't seen in the darkness.  Once he entered the cellar, Fred needed to use the flashlight on his cellphone to locate the light switch.

In the first example, Fred stumbles as a direct consequence of the darkness. Next sentence shows Fred using some ingenuity to find a light switch that either will or will not make the cellar easier to navigate. Even if the light switch doesn't provide useful light, Fred still has a source available to deal with the darkness. Note how the darkness was present in the second sentence without being named by Fred or the writer.

Mary did so well her last time out, let's see how she does with "late."

Already aware she was reaching the limits of acceptable lateness, Mary boarded the bus without checking to see if it was the right one.  Now she'd have to suffer the consequences of a father who valued promptness more than anything else.

These examples of cold, dark, and late all bring in other information, which comes through the filter of the character. Note the absence of authorial presence.

Some--but by no means all--added examples of tells:

She was glad.                                         He would never do such a thing.
He resented the implication.             She yearned for a job like that.
She was willing to share.                    He felt betrayed.
He wanted all of it for himself.          He envied Fred.
She decided not to accept.                  She felt uncomfortable, compromised.

All these examples, potentially valid, can be brought out of the sidelines of stage direction and transferred into story points.  

Consider these:  Story is dramatic action rather than expository description. Each of the recent examples describes an action.

There are three basic actions in story: (1) Narrative, which is a choice of verbs to portray movement (2) Interior Monologue, which is the internal conversation the character has while performing (3) Dialogue, which is what the character says to other characters, often in modified or direct contrast to what the character wants and believes.

Anything "else" is a stage direction or footnote. 

The "simple" solution to this condition: Move the "else" to 1, 2, or 3.

The "simple" way to accomplish this: (1) Stop writing for the Reader. (2) Start writing for the Characters.

If you write for the Reader, you put yourself in the mode of explaining the story (and you know how you get when others go on about explaining things to you).

If you write for the Characters, you allow the Reader to do the thing they most enjoy--which is to eavesdrop, then form their own conclusions.

Thursday, March 30, 2017


Stories do not come easily. Certainly not the ones you value. Those come as unexpected, even undreamed of gifts, from unexpected sources, for surprising, random reasons.

All stories are gifts from some source of another. The ones you suspect most are those that come from conventional sources, learned sources, where recepie and formula are the watchwords in the same way curriculum and study guides were watchwords for the teachers who taught you  and for the facts you were supposed to absorb and assimilate.

In a real and demonstrable sense, these suspect stories were ones you were at great pains to understand in order to fulfill some social goal that has no relationship to story or to writing. You wanted to know these recipies and formula not nearly so much for fame or fortune as for a sense of being able to engage with others, watch them, team with or oppose them, but at all costs to engage in the social contract with them.

To see yourself liked, chosen for teams, invited to parties, asked to repeat your own last story by someone who'd heard it to someone who did not.

Fifty or sixty years of learning and striving to be chosen. Such years are barriers that require breeching, conventional wisdom to be unlearned, recipies and formulae to be abandoned along the roadside.

Among the many metaphors you recognize for stories is the one in which the abandoned clumps of personal goods were scattered by those brave individuals who rode their Conestoga wagons west, seeking a place beyond the surveyed lots of civilization.

Some gifts, by whim or humorous tradition, are meant to be awful, given for their absolute lack of appropriateness, given as a teasing recognition of grotesque, gothic, useless and absurd functions.

The good stories are the ones you have to work hardest at, beyond the fifty or sixty years of learning.

The good stories come from reaching into an inconvenient corner of an inconvenient place. Finding them, they bring you an outcome and definition you'd not in the least expected. They bring you the awareness that you are composed of them and the abandoned goods you left roadside on your journey West.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Convenient Dog

To convey the sense of a character's inner self at work, dramatists have given us the soliloquy. Many novelists and short story writers have modified this means of conveying inner feelings into the device of interior monologue.

With two or more characters on stage or page, the author has recourse to a wide, creative spectrum of action-related options. With one character on stage or page alone, the options narrow. The author is forced into the head of the character, where the verbs turn from action based into those driven by thought.

Writers, forced by contractual observations to be more observant of deadlines than technique, or seduced by their own sense of cleverness, will on occasion resort to giving a solitary character some pet with whom to have the sort of conversation that does not strike the reader as entirely gratuitous.

You can--and do--say with the authority of emphasis that story is action. It often contains thought, but the story more often than not begins with some action to demonstrate plans to cope with disaster, ambition, and loyalty to a cause.

Characters who discuss their stake in the parameters of the story or, indeed, in comparisons of the animal and human conditions run the risk of being seen as cute.

Dogs and cats appear most often as convenience buddies, beings whose presence in the story has no other purpose than providing a lazy writer with a way out of a dilemma.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Stranger in Town

All stories begin with an incident to shatter the calm of routine. For some time to come, perhaps forever, adios to the ordinary. Bienvenidos to the downward spiral of dramatic events to come. If we have any history of reading fiction, we know some form of disaster and some need for evasive action beckon. Our curiosity and anticipation draw us in.

Many stories begin with an individual--often the protagonist--sent or assigned to an unfamiliar locale, with a stated goal or assignment. Welcome to the stranger in town, one of the two or three basic designs of story.

The stranger in town represents the alien or outsider to the locals, who are wary if not outright suspicious and resentful. To see this dynamic in action, start with the opening paragraphs of Gustave Flaubert's Madam Bovary, where the character of Charles Bovary is first introduced to a classroom of schoolmates. Although not the protagonist, Charles Bovary comes to us as an outsider. In one way or another, he remains marginal and influential to his eventual wife, Emma.

Camille Preaker, protagonist of Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects, gives yet another version of stranger in town. A regular from a place has left, often for life in another city. Circumstances call her back home, where she's regarded as changed, no longer one of us, her trustworthiness and motives cause for increased suspicion.

The greater a character's deviation from ordinary, the better the character's potential for dramatic immortality. Captain Ahab, far from the protagonist of Moby Dick, nevertheless steals scenes from The Whale and from the intended protagonist, Ishmael. Readers who have yet to experience the pleasures of Thackeray's Vanity Fair, have absorbed through literary osmosis the picture of Becky Sharp as an opportunist. Those yet to read Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, still know Scarlett O'Hara's mantra about tomorrow. Shakespeare's Iago resides in infamy as an advocate of treachery, and who among us believes his Sir John Falstaff was ever knighted in actuality.

The Stranger in Town represents the spectrum of marginality or alienness readers understand, often on the level of personal experience. Difficult to concieve of any serious writer who has not felt the separation of being from alien country. The Stranger is the one white in an all-black group, the one black in an all-white, the one white in an otherwise Asian group. To add double jeopardy, imagine a WASP baseball player, fresh off an athletic scholarship to Princeton, one of the most reputed WASP universities, being drafted by a major league baseball team in which most of the starting lineup is from Cuba and Central America.

SIT embodies race, gender, sexual orientation, political, and economic stratification. SIT can be a young girl asking her prehistoric father if she can have a boyfriend over to dinner, and the father hoping the boyfriend is not "on of then Neanderthal sorts." 

What are her true origins? What does she want? Why is she really  here? Nevermind what she tells us, what agenda does she hide?

Monday, March 27, 2017

Authorial Flagging

After a sufficient introduction to the joys of reading, most readers will dabble outside the range of contemporary authors, sampling works from past centuries. In the process, they become aware of writers who produce a steady ensemble of eccentric characters, whose foibles span the spectrum of outrageous behavior.

Authors from the past,such as Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Marianne Evans (writing as George Eliot) and Charlotte Bronte have been particularly adept at providing us with memorable characters. More contemporary authors, say Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, Elmore Leonard,and Nadine Gordimer, win our hearts and minds because of the way they've participated in the evolution of character from mere description into evocations of behavior through the filter of their individual actions.

Even so, these authors project a sense of personality and style that filters through the open spaces within their narratives. But when an author oversteps the boundaries of twenty-first century storytelling conventions, we become aware of their desperate need to burst upon a particular scene, arms waving, to flag down out attention, whereupon they undertake to explain to us the things we readers should be working out for ourselves.

Hence authorial flagging, the attempt of a writer to explain the story to us rather than being content to let the story tell itself.

Don't tell the reader what the reader may already know.

Don't do the reader's work for him or her, which will only cause you in the long run to complain that readers are too lazy to get your intentions and implications.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Arrive At

Someone or something appears, right now, in a story. The principals don't have time, ability, nor inclination to cope. 

The electricity for the Winfield's home in The Glass Menagerie is turned off. Tom was supposed to pay the bill. He didn't, which builds toward a suggestion he was using the money for a get-away-from-home fund.

Huck Finn's drink-prone and abusive father returns to town, thinking to supervise Huck's dollar-a-day stipend from the treasure he and his friend, Tom Sawyer, liberated in a previous adventure. Pap Finn's arrival triggers the subsequent novel, which is an account of Huck's attempt to escape and his accidental paring with the runaway slave, Jim.

For the story, already underway, this arrival presents the complexity of an intrusion, a rock thrown, if you will, by Fate,a clamor for attention in the life of the characters and the minds of the reader. (See Stranger in Town).

This new arrival signals the presence of a distant or unknown relative, an old friend from a different lifestyle, a romantic ex, an individual your character's parent did not approve of, at the character's doorstep, bearing a cheap gift and an agenda.

The arrival may also be an object, a letter, say, or a legal summons, or a bunch of flowers.

Never mind that the arrival may be at the wrong door, the letter or summons or bunch of flowers delivered by mistake. The effects add momentum to the destabilization inflicted upon the cast of characters when the story begins.

Anton Chekhov's illustrative short story, "The Death of a Civil Servant," begins with the eponymous protagonist, a lowly civil servant,seated at an opera, caught up in his profound enjoyment of the performance. What could possibly arrive in such a place and at such a time to destabilize? 

Funny you should ask. If you know Chekhov--and you should--the answer sidesteps its way in, skirting plausibility. A sneeze. The protagonist sneezes. No biggie, right? People are known to sneeze in any number of circumstances.

The problem comes home to roost when the protagonist realizes some minute traces of his sneeze have traveled to the back of the head of the person sitting directly in front of him. He can see the traces, right there--gulp--on a general who works for the same bureaucracy, although not the same department. 

Our hero tries, for the rest of the story, to apologize. The general keeps interrupting him, telling him the incident does not matter. But the Civil Servant can't let the matter go.

The story ends with the Civil Servant so hopelessly caught up in the downward spiral of his own, imagined consequences, that he goes home, puts on his dress uniform, goes to bed, whereupon he dies.

This one story helps illustrate the influence of Chekhov on modern writers, the added effects of the Arrival, and some of the many ways the growl and gnaw of the inner voice can remind us of how vulnerable a character can become.

Saturday, March 25, 2017


There is a point you reach before sending a work off to its life in print where you're not quite satisfied with the result nor are you confident one more close read through will offer a clue to the missing element. At such times, you reach for the device most favored by the arsonist.

What you're looking for isn't mentioned by name in any book about composing fiction, least of all in any of your writings on the subject. If you know anything at all about the process of storytelling, you know how open the medium is to the migration of useful concepts from other disciplines. 

You like to tell yourself you were on that very track when you noted the common bond shared by the writer, the dancer, the musician, and the photographer. All of these worthies manipulate time to their advantage, whether it is the length of a note in a musical piece, the shutter speed in a photograph, the pose held by a dancer, the life event extended or compressed by the storyteller.

Your common ground with the arsonist is the accelerant, the medium the arsonist uses to speed up the intensity and range of the fire. Your narrative may lack some degree of inevitability crashing to the ground as though a juggler had dropped his display items. It may progress at a jog when it should be more of a gallop. The culprit in your narrative maybe something as innocent as a sense of awareness being regarded as an insight rather than a life-changing revelation.

Your favorite arrival point in your reading of the work of sister and brother writers, long dead or less than half your present day age, is the moment when you understand you are not where you wish to be, within a narrative you cannot possibly abandon. Such narratives hold you in their power of accelerated involvement and inevitability.

The accelerant in your own work may turn out to be as simple as the lead character wanting the outcome even sooner than you'd thought. Perhaps the character's wish is for a larger portion of whatever the goal, or the settling of a score so hopelessly unsettled as to cause the other characters in the narrative to think of it as quixotic.

Although you do not strive for the kinds of humor associated with the more physical, slip-on-a-banana-peel aspects of comedy, rather instead with the overall notion of the universe itself being a part of a large, anomalous joke, you tend to gravitate toward characters like Wile E. coyote, who appear fortunate if they can manage to avoid for a few moments the latest in a series of humiliations.

You look for an accelerant, some kerosene or petrol to throw on the fire that has just come to life through some miscalculation or some more spontaneous combustion. You want the fire to speed up. From this comes the voice and the humor you seek.

Humor is tragedy, speeded up.

The Fates have tossed a match into the wastebasket.

The Muses have caused a fire in the kitchen.

The sorcerer's apprentice has underestimated his ability.

There is the chaos about you of your own characters, running from the cover you thought to provide them.